M. Carrol Tama
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication
NCTE Committee on Critical Thinking and the Language Arts defines critical thinking
as "a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates
logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action."
In a new monograph copublished by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication
Skills, Siegel and Carey (1989) emphasize the roles of signs, reflection, and
skepticism in this process.
(1987) suggests that "critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking
that is focused on deciding what to believe or do." However defined, critical
thinking refers to a way of reasoning that demands adequate support for one's
beliefs and an unwillingness to be persuaded unless the support is forthcoming.
should we be concerned about critical thinking in our classrooms? Obviously, we
want to educate citizens whose decisions and choices will be based on careful,
critical thinking. Maintaining the right of free choice itself may depend on the
ability to think clearly. Yet, we have been bombarded with a series of national
reports which claim that "Johnny can't think" (Mullis, 1983; Gardner,
1983; Action for Excellence, 1983). All of them call for schools to guide students
in developing the higher level thinking skills necessary for an informed society.
needed to begin to think about issues and problems do not suddenly appear in our
students (Tama, 1986; 1989). Teachers who have attempted to incorporate higher
level questioning in their discussions or have administered test items demanding
some thought rather than just recall from their students are usually dismayed
at the preliminary results. Unless the students have been prepared for the change
in expectations, both the students and the teacher are likely to experience frustration.
is needed to cultivate these skills in the classroom? A number of researchers
claim that the classroom must nurture an environment providing modeling, rehearsal,
and coaching, for students and teachers alike, to develop a capacity for informed
judgments (Brown, 1984; Hayes and Alvermann, 1986).
and Alvermann found that coaching teachers led to significant changes in students'
discussion, including more critical analysis. The supervision model that was used
allowed teachers and researchers to meet for preobservation conferences in order
to set the purpose for the observation. Then, each teacher's lessons were videotaped
and observers made field notes to supplement the videotape. After the lesson,
the researchers met to analyze the tape and notes and to develop strategies for
coaching the teachers. In another post-observation meeting, the teachers and supervisors
planned future lessons incorporating the changes they felt necessary to promote
and improve critical discussion in the classes.
and Alvermann report that this coaching led teachers to acknowledge students'
remarks more frequently and to respond to the students more elaborately. It significantly
increased the proportion of text-connected talk students used as support for their
ideas and/or as cited sources of their information. In addition, students' talk
became more inferential and analytical.
summary of the literature on the role of "wait time," (the time a teacher
allows for a student to respond as well as the time an instructor waits after
a student replies) found that it had an impact on students' thinking (Tobin, 1987).
In this review of studies, Tobin found that those teachers who allowed a 3-5 second
pause between the question and response permitted students to produce cognitively
complex discourse. Teachers who consciously managed the duration of pauses after
their questioning and provided regular intervals of silence during explanation
created an environment where thinking was expected and practiced.
Tobin concludes that "wait time" in and of itself does not insure critical
thinking. A curriculum which provides students with the opportunity to develop
thinking skills must be in place. Interestingly, Tobin found that high achievers
consistently were permitted more wait time than were less skilled students, ndicating
that teachers need to monitor and evaluate their own behavior while using such
teachers need to become more tolerant of "conflict," or confrontation,
in the classroom. They need to raise issues which create dissonance and refrain
from expressing their own bias, letting the students debate and resolve problems.
Although content area classroom which encourages critical thinking can promote
a kind of some psychological discomfort in some students as conflicting accounts
of information and ideas are argued and debated, such feelings may motivate them
to resolve an issue (Festinger, 1957). They need to get a feel for the debate
and the conflict it involves. Isn't there ample everyday evidence of this: Donahue,
Geraldo Rivera, USA Today?
like Frager (1984) and Johnson and Johnson (1979) claim that to really engage
in critical thinking, students must encounter the dissonance of conflicting ideas.
Dissonance, as discussed by Festinger, 1957 promotes a psychological discomfort
which occurs in the presence of an inconsistency and motivates students to resolve
help students develop skills in resolving this dissonance, Frager (1984) offers
a model for conducting critical thinking classes and provides samples of popular
issues that promote it: for example, banning smoking in public places, the bias
infused in some sports accounts, and historical incidents written from both American
and Russian perspectives.
teachers feel that their concept of thinking is instructionally useful, if they
develop the materials necessary for promoting this thinking, and if they practice
the procedures necessary, then the use of critical thinking activities in the
classroom will produce positive results.
Lipman (1988) writes, "The improvement of student thinking--from ordinary
thinking to good thinking--depends heavily upon students' ability to identify
and cite good reasons for their opinions."
students to do critical thinking is not an easy task. Teaching which involves
higher level cognitive processes, comprehension, inference, and decision making
often proves problematic for students. Such instruction is often associated with
delays in the progress of a lesson, with low success and completion rates, and
even with direct negotiations by students to alter the demands of work (Doyle,
1985). This negotiation by students is understandable. They have made a career
of passive learning. When met by instructional situations in which they may have
to use some mental energies, some students resist that intellectual effort. What
emerges is what Sizer (1984) calls "conspiracy for the least," an agreement
by the teacher and students to do just enough to get by.
the difficulties, many teachers are now promoting critical thinking in the classroom.
They are nurturing this change from ordinary thinking to good thinking admirably.
They are 1) promoting critical thinking by infusing instruction with opportunities
for their students to read widely, to write, and to discuss; 2) frequently using
course tasks and assignments to focus on an issue, question, or problem; and 3)
promoting metacognitive attention to thinking so that students develop a growing
awareness of the relationship of thinking to reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
(See Tama, 1989.)
new ERIC/RCS and NCTE monograph (Neilsen, 1989) echoes similar advice, urging
teachers to allow learners to be actively involved in the learning process, to
provide consequential contexts for learning, to arrange a supportive learning
environment that respects student opinions while giving enough direction to ensure
their relevance to a topic, and to provide ample opportunities for learners to
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publication was prepared (Digest#40, EDO-CS-89-03, May 1989) with funding from
the U.S. Department of Education under contract number RI88062001, and published
by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication.
opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or
policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products,
or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.